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LinkedIn’s biggest obstacle in China isn’t censorship, it’s culture

derek shen 3

Derek Shen, President of LinkedIn China

With a Chinese-language site and WeChat integration, professional social network LinkedIn (NYSE:LNKD) is going after China’s young up-and-comers. Many people were skeptical that a Western social network would be allowed over the country’s Great Firewall, but LinkedIn so far has been able to stay on the censors’ good side.

“LinkedIn and maybe Snapchat are the only ones that can get regulatory approval here in China,” said Youku CEO Victor Koo in response to an audience question at last week’s China 2.0 forum. The event at Beijing’s Peking University also brought Derek Shen, the newly appointed president of LinkedIn China, to the stage.

Shen says his company has three rules when it comes to matters of censorship: follow the government restrictions, be transparent about how those restrictions affect the user and the site, and protect users’ data. LinkedIn China’s efforts to stay in line are evident when comparing it to the international version. Obviously, Twitter and Facebook integration are nowhere to be found. Similarly, the Groups feature and the option to self-publish articles on users’ profiles are also missing, although these could be added in later versions.

So it seems LinkedIn is fully complying with everything the government would ask, but that doesn’t guarantee the social network success.

See: LinkedIn ramps up hiring efforts in China, set to launch Pulse news reader app in Chinese

What LinkedIn can learn from WeChat

One Chinese audience member at the forum posed a particularly insightful question to Shen: In a society where people guard their close connections and often keep their professional contacts a secret, how will LinkedIn get users to open up and share their professional network with the world?

Compared to Western business culture, Chinese people keep their cards close to their chest. Publicly broadcasting one’s professional contacts is a very foreign concept, yet it serves as the backbone of LinkedIn. This is a huge cultural barrier that LinkedIn will have to overcome if it ever wants to garner real success in China.

In response, Shen cited a global survey that showed only six percent of employees in China are happy with their jobs. Shen says LinkedIn provides an escape from unhappy work for those open to it.

In comparison, WeChat, although not necessarily by design, has become a huge resource for job seekers, employers, and other professional networkers in China because of its more private model. Many groups of 100 to 500 people consist solely of like-minded professionals, and participation requires an invitation from someone already inside a group. Furthermore, other people’s contacts are not visible.

Although WeChat integration is a noteworthy first step, LinkedIn will still have to find ways to localize for the much more private relationship structure found here. Trying to change the mindset of an entire society will undoubtedly result in failure.

LinkedIn is still young in China, though, and Shen emphasized that the China branch essentially functions like a startup. This could give it the agility it requires to adapt to local needs and wants. Shen said 70 percent of China’s current four million or so users are from the top four cities, and his team is only focusing on “gold collar” professionals – one rung above white collar – for the time being.

Editing by Willis Wee

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